While you were holidaying …
- Branko Brkic
- 04 Jan 2010 09:15 (South Africa)
Well, you’ve been away in Plett watching the polo, but the world, rather annoyingly, kept humming.
While you’ve been putting those newspapers and magazines in a neat pile to read later, 23-year-old Nigerian student, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, took some study leave to hook up with al Qaeda bomb makers in Yemen, so he could – and we swear we are not making this up – smuggle explosive material in his undershorts on to a Northwest Airlines flight en route to Detroit from Amsterdam on Christmas Day. As he was trying to mix the chemicals to set off the explosion, passengers and crew put out the fire, and forcibly restrained him until the plane could land and he could be arrested.
The whole incident put the spotlight back on a still-cumbersome US air transport security system. Abdulmutallab’s own father had gone to the US embassy in Abuja to tell the Americans about his son’s growing religious fanaticism. Although the son ended up on a watch list of about half a million names, his US visa was never revoked and he boarded his flight from Lagos via Amsterdam to Detroit after buying the one-way ticket for cash - and travelling without luggage. None, nada, zip. If you’ve ever seen the airport in Lagos, that should have set alarm bells ringing everywhere!
At first, there was confusion in the US government about all this. Homeland security secretary Janet Napolitano said on TV “the system worked”. Right. Later she corrected herself by saying that the parts of the system that tracked names worked, but, er, sorry, the part that is supposed to stop would-be airplane bombers was a little wobbly. Right you are, guv’nor.
Meanwhile, President Barack Obama, his wife and kids, who have been trying to get in a little sun and surf in Honolulu like a normal family, worked up a little anger about the plot, the bomber, the Yemen connection to al Qaeda and the system that didn’t work. Obama said, “This is not the first time this group has targeted us,” and he reviewed how the intelligence community – altogether – hadn’t stopped Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab from boarding NW253.
On Sunday, the president’s top counterterrorism advisor, appearing on virtually every TV politics talk show there is in the US, said that intelligence agencies did not miss a specific “smoking gun” that could have prevented the attempt to blow up the airliner on Christmas, although there were lapses.
General David Petraeus added the US will more than double the $67 million in counterterrorism aid to Yemen, a poor nation located at the heel of the Arabian Peninsula that is already fighting a war against some serious rebels in its northern reaches.
Lest we forget, Yemen is where Osama bin Ladin’s family comes from, it is where the USS Cole was attacked in 2000 – and, if some older sources are to be believed, it is also where the Queen of Sheba came from so she could hook up with King Solomon.
Now, just as you were driving back along the N3, the US and UK announced they had closed their embassies in Yemen in the face of new threats by al Qaeda (who else?). This is an embassy, the American one, anyway, that has already been attacked several times in real life - and in that movie with Samuel L Jackson.
In what may be some good news for the president, Obama’s administration sources say Iran’s domestic unrest and some unanticipated trouble with Tehran’s nuclear programme may make its leaders more vulnerable to strong, new sanctions. These would be the latest phase of attempts to compel Iran to comply with UN demands to stop production of nuclear fuel.
This comes as the Iranian government is distracted by street demonstrations, political infighting and the effort to refine nuclear fuel that seems to have hit some speed bumps. As one administration official working on Iran policy said, these current troubles may “give us a window to impose the first sanctions that may make the Iranians think the nuclear programme isn’t worth the price tag”.
And over in Kabul, the Afghan parliament rejected 17 of Hamid Karzai’s 23 new cabinet nominations. In the Saturday vote, the parliament rejected the president’s political cronies, those under the influence of those pesky warlords – and those who are just generally unqualified. Karzai did, however, get his choices for defence, interior and finance.
Influential columnist and best-selling author on South Asian security issues, Ahmed Rashid, predicts this year will be the most difficult one in Afghanistan and Pakistan since the end of the Cold War.
“If both nations fail to achieve a modicum of political stability and success against extremism and economic growth, the world will be faced with an expansion of Islamic extremism, doubts about the safety of Pakistan's nuclear weapons and major questions about US prestige and power as it withdraws from Afghanistan,” Rashid writes.
“The challenges for both countries are deeply interlinked and enormous. Without Pakistan eliminating Taliban sanctuaries or forcing the Afghan Taliban leadership into talks with Kabul, US success in Afghanistan is unlikely. The primary task is whether both countries can work together with the Western alliance to roll back the Taliban and al Qaeda threat they face. That, in turn, rests on the success of the US and Nato's new strategy in both countries over the next 18 months….”
And just in case you had stopped thinking about China for a minute, well, think again. On Friday, a new trade association linking China with the six founder members of ASEAN - Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand – comes into effect to eliminate tariffs on 90% of all imported goods. This becomes the largest free trade zone in the world, with nearly 1.9 billion people affected and encompassing some of the world’s most important export-driven economies.
Oh, and the US Senate passed a health reform measure, and when they come back after their break, they get to wrestle with the House of Representatives over how to write a consolidated, joint bill on which they all agree and which Obama can finally sign.
By Brooks Spector
On Iran – read the New York Times
And on the ASEAN-China free trade pact – read the BBC